The Grammarphobia Blog

Doubling down at KFC

Q: I’ve been hearing a lot of “doubling down,” where it seems to connote increased effort. All my long life I’ve used “doubling up” with the same connotation. Are both right, or am I double damned? PS: Why not just “doubling”?

A: You’re right. The verbal phrase “double down” has been showing up a lot lately in a new sense: to increase one’s efforts.

This specific use of “double down” doesn’t appear in the Oxford English Dictionary or in any standard dictionary. But Macmillan’s online Open Dictionary, which accepts contributions from the public, has it.

The entry, submitted on Feb. 15, 2012, by an unnamed contributor from the United Kingdom, defines the verbal phrase as to “increase one’s efforts or focus,” and gives this example:

“It’s time to end the taxpayer giveaways to an industry that rarely has been more profitable, and double-down on a clean energy industry that never has been more promising.”

Another sense of “double down” has a longer history. The phrase was a gambling term when it first appeared in the 1940s, according to published references in the OED. Although “double up” appeared much earlier in an entirely different sense, it also showed up in the 1940s as a gambling usage.

In blackjack, Oxford says, to “double down” means “to double the bet after one has seen the initial cards, with the requirement that one and only one additional card be drawn.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation is from John Scarne’s 1949 book Scarne on Cards: “He doubles down on a count of 9 and he draws a deuce.”

The OED adds that the use of the verbal phrase later expanded beyond gambling to mean “to engage in risky behaviour, esp. when one is already in a dangerous situation.”

The dictionary’s first citation for the broader usage is from A Line Out for a Walk, a 1991 essay collection by Joseph Epstein:

“Let me double down … and see if I can’t win some points for being a racist by asserting that, for some while now, black men have worn hats with more flair than anyone else in America.”

However, the OED doesn’t mention the more general newer usage (to increase one’s effort) noticed by you as well as the contributor to Macmillan’s Open Dictionary. Here’s an example from the Oct. 27, 2011, issue of the Wall Street Journal:

“After moving its apparel office to New York in 2009 with great fanfare about fashion, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is packing up the operation and moving it back to its Bentonville, Ark., headquarters, where it will double-down on basics.”

This new use of “double down” hasn’t escaped the notice of word junkies. It was recently discussed on the American Dialect Society’s mailing list, and the linguist Ben Zimmer wrote about it in his Sept. 14 Word Routes column on the Visual Thesaurus website.

As for “double up,” it entered English in the 18th century with the sense of two people joining together to share lodgings. But it took on a gambling sense in the first half of the 20th century—to double the stakes.

The OED’s first citation for the gambling usage is from Eggs, Beans & Crumpets, a 1940 collection of short stories by P. G. Wodehouse: “You doubled up when you won, thus increasing your profits by leaps and bounds.”

Can the verb “double” be used in place of the verbal phrase “double down” in either of the newer usages?

We don’t think so. It’s too precise to mean merely increasing one’s effort. And it doesn’t suggest responding to a risky situation with more risky behavior.

Speaking of risky behavior, how about Kentucky Fried Chicken’s breadless Double Down sandwich: bacon, two kinds of melted cheese, and the Colonel’s secret sauce, all between two Original Recipe chicken fillets.

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